Reflecting on Willie Stewart
Just like their players, football coaches are judged by the numbers they put up. DeMatha’s Bill McGregor has won at least 10 games in 12 of the past 13 seasons. Good Counsel’s Bob Milloy just coached his third team to the top of the Post’s final rankings. Al Thomas won a total of eight Maryland state championships with three different schools.
For Willie Stewart, who was fired after his 29th season at Anacostia, perhaps this was the most head-shaking statistic of his tenure: 20 of his players were shot, four fatally.
Twenty times, Stewart had to console, support and calm his players as they wondered whether their teammate would be okay.
And four of those times, when those hopes took a fatal turn, Stewart shepherded teenagers to funerals.
Yet, Stewart persevered and kept coaching in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the region, taking 13 teams to the Turkey Bowl in a 21-year span. No D.C. coach has worked more Thanksgivings than Stewart.
“He kept me up many nights thinking about what he was trying to do,” said former longtime H.D. Woodson Coach Bob Headen, with whom Stewart built a rivalry so big that their annual matchup was held at Cardozo for a time because neither Woodson nor Anacostia had enough bleachers to accommodate the game’s crowd.
His teams may not have been as successful the past decade, and his roster numbers declined noticeably, but Stewart had already established himself as an icon in the Anacostia community. There was no face or voice more closely associated with the school than Stewart’s. How many other coaches around the Washington area can make that claim?
It seems pretty silly that Stewart’s departure, according to a letter he received from first-year Anacostia principal R. Malik Bazzell, was a result of Stewart not implementing a mandatory study hall for his players this season, and his players’ poor behavior during school hours. It’s silly for suddenly making that demand on Stewart, but it’s also silly for his refusal to abide by it. Stewart said he had long had a study hall for his players, but didn't require everyone to attend. He justified this by saying some of his players were outstanding students, and shouldn't be required to go to a study hall. While that's a valid point, it's hard to believe additional study time would have a detrimental effect on kids.
“You think about D.C. football, in general,” said Cato June, the 1997 All-Met Defensive Player of the Year at Anacostia, who is now in his seventh NFL season, “and we’re not a powerhouse, like Florida, Texas or California. We’ve got different problems. We’re just trying to get kids to come to practice. That’s what Stew did. He kept them there.”
But considering all the success Stewart had navigating such unique and emotional circumstances – subjects for which no coach or teacher is ever fully-prepared – it’s easy to see why Stewart was adamant about doing things his way.
“It’s not about wins and losses with Willie; it never was,” McGregor said. “It’s all about the kids he’s saved.”
And that might account for more of Stewart’s legacy than his career record. Others acknowledged it, too.
Stewart was recognized by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society with its Giant Step Award for coaching Anacostia to a 10-3 mark in 1993, despite having four of his players shot during the season. Winners of the award “exemplify the ideals and provide the support necessary for student-athletes to achieve academic and athletic success.”
The following year, Stewart shared the stage at the Smithsonian’s Ripley Auditorium with NFL Hall-of-Fame coaches Tom Landry and Chuck Noll for a presentation, “Coaching Football: the Keys to Success.”
In 1998, NFL Films spent three days at Anacostia shadowing Stewart’s activities as part of its series, “Father Figures in Football.”
Three years ago, he was one of two high school coaches who testified before a House Government Reform Committee on the need to toughen the NFL’s steroid policy
“We’re talking about a legend for DCPS, not just football, but everything,” June said. “It’s unfortunate for the kids, because it’s difficult for the kids already.
“But to do it without Stew?”
December 16, 2009; 10:44 PM ET
Categories: Anacostia , Football
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